How to Deal with Flexible Working Requests
The Rise of Flexible Working
The last decade has seen the beginnings of a shift in the way we work. However, this shift has been moving at a glacier-like pace. Cue, COVID-19. The global pandemic has melted that glacier much like global warming and now, it’s a rushing river moving at speed. The social restrictions put in place by governments around the world have forced employers to re-assess the established norms of the working world and give serious consideration to the issue of flexible working.
Over the last two years, things which employers have said previously could not be done have in fact, been done and successfully so. Chief amongst these is the notion that thousands of office workers could work from home and maintain the same levels of efficiency and productivity. Not only has this proven to not be the case, but in some instances, productivity has actually improved with staff working from home. Consequently, it has become much harder for employers to deny flexible working requests. This, combined with the fact that many of us have found we don’t miss the morning commute and like working from the sofa, has resulted in a significant increase in flexible working. One that is likely to stick around.
Despite the clear rise in popularity and application of flexible working methods, it should be noted that the number of requests varies dramatically form region-to-region. CIPD studies have identified flexible working ‘not spots’ throughout the UK and focused in the midlands and the north of England. In these areas, flexible working requests are often at a minimum. In contrast, London and the South East similar requests have sky-rocketed. This disparity can be explained by socio-economic factors as well as the job market in these regions. In London and the South East, employees’ roles often have higher skill levels whilst the surrounding area has lower unemployment rates. These two factors combine to give employees significant bargaining power and so their requests for flexible working have a higher chance of success.
The speed of its rise may be inconsistent across the UK but one thing is for certain, flexible working requests aren’t going away any time soon. Therefore, it’s critical that employers get up to speed on laws surrounding topic and prepare for future changes. That’s where People Vision come in. The rest of this article will breakdown everything you need to know so that you’re ready to deal with the inevitable influx of flexible working requests that will come your way.
Right, the law. Also known as the boring stuff. However, it’s typically the most boring stuff that is the most important. The first thing to establish is that employees have the right to request flexible working, however they do not have the right to insist on it. This is an important distinction that can often be overlooked by employers and employees alike.
Second, there is currently a service requirement in place. Before an employee can make a flexible working request, they must have been in their position for a minimum of 26 weeks.
Third (don’t worry we’re almost there), flexible working is available to all employees. At first this privilege was only offered to parents and then later extended to carers. Now though, anyone can submit a request for flexible working although this doesn’t mean that everyone’s request will be granted.
Lastly, flexible working doesn’t just mean working from home. Although home working has held the spotlight throughout the global pandemic, there are many other forms that flexible working can take:
Flexible working hours – later starts/earlier finishes
Compressed hours – full time job in reduced days
Hybrid working – a mix of remote and office-based working
Whilst employers are not obligated to grant every request for flexible working that comes across their desk, there are consequences for failing to properly handle a request. Most frequently, an employee may resign and claim constructive dismissal and a payment of two weeks wages. They may also link their claim to the Equality Act and suggest their request was denied due to gender, racial, religious etc. discrimination. In order to avoid such potentially embarrassing and costly incidents, it’s important that employers understand the permissible reasons to deny a request as outlined in the Employments Act:
Burden of additional costs
Detrimental effect on ability to meet customer demand
Inability to reorganise work among existing staff
Inability to recruit new staff
Detrimental impact on quality
Detrimental impact on performance
Insufficiency of work during the periods the employee proposes to work
Planned structural changes
It should be noted that it is not enough to just pick one of the above, employers must also provide sufficient evidence. For example, it a request was denied due to an inability to recruit new staff, then the employer must show that they have made a concerted effort to hire new employees.
This is where it gets exciting. Well, as exciting as employment law can get. Way back in 2019, the Conservative government made a commitment to a consultation on flexible working in both its manifesto and the Queen’s Speech. Before COVID-19, this was a rather unnoteworthy footnote but the global pandemic has brought this commitment into sharp focus. Now, this consultation has yet to take place and it is unclear when it will, let alone when legal changes could be made but it is worth being aware of the topics that will be discussed:
26-week eligibility requirement to be removed and all employees to be be eligible from their first day of employment.
Change from only one request allowed every 12 months.
Making working from home the default position (i.e., everyone shall work from home unless there is a justified reason not to).
All these topics will be debated and are likely to face some opposition, especially the last one. Nevertheless, it is beneficial to be aware of them and begin planning for any potential repercussions the consultation may have.
Managing the Process
So, now you know the basics of flexible working and the potential changes on the horizon, but what happens when a request actually comes across your desk? How do you deal with a flexible working request? Well, first things first, check if you have a company policy and if you do, follow it to the letter. It’s amazing how many managers fail to do this and instead adopt their own informal, ad-hoc policy. Such an approach is rarely effective or efficient and instead results in a practical and logistical nightmare. So, follow company policy – it’s there for a reason.
Now, if you don’t have a company policy, don’t worry People Vision are here to help. We can offer support and consultation services if you feel out of your depth. However, in truth, the process is relatively simple and straightforward.
First, the employee’s request must be in writing and include the effect the employee thinks the requested change would have on the employer and other employees. Not only is this a legal requirement, but it also ensures that the employee in question fully understands the impact of their request and allows them to consider whether it is really practical. We recommend offering HR support (which incidentally we can provide) to help employees put together their requests.
Second, hold a meeting to go through their request to come to the best solution that benefits all parties involved. This is not a legal requirement but it is an effective way to ensure clarity and understanding on everyone’s part. This will limit any future confusion or potential legal action.
Third, provide a written response that outlines why a request has been granted or denied. This is a legal requirement and must include one of the permissible reasons outlined earlier alongside sufficient evidence. This ensures that employers are not left vulnerable to claims under either of the Equality Act or the Employments Act.
Lastly, if you are intending to refuse a request for flexible working then offer a right of appeal. This is not a legal requirement but is worth the considering as the consequences of handling a request improperly are often serious.
Well, that’s about it. You’re now ready to tackle any and all flexible working requests. We, at People Vision, would like to offer one last piece of advice: granting one request does not mean you have to grant them all. Accepting a request does not set a precedent. Each case must be examined individually and judged on its own merits.